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Posted Thursday, April 8, 2004
           
AIDS stalks Haiti's children
            
By Simon Gardner, Reuters Writer

PETIONVILLE, Haiti, Apr. 8 (Reuters) - As dusk falls over the hills around Haiti's slum-ridden capital, former classmates Widney and Casandra head outside to sit on a street corner, watch the cars go by and dream of finding that perfect job.

The giggling young girls also wonder how many men they are going to have sex with that night, how much cash they'll earn and when they should get their next AIDS test.

"I didn't want to be a prostitute," Widney whispers shyly in Creole, Haiti's language of broken French, as half a dozen other waif-like teen-age girls gather in this corner of upmarket Petionville, on the slopes just outside Port-au-Prince.

"I want to go back to school. But I have to eat," she says, her voice trailing off and head turning as a car pulls up nearby.

Clips in her hair, eyes glinting beneath caked makeup, Widney says she is 17. Her friends burst out laughing. So does she. Widney looks younger, and she has already been working the streets for three years.

What about AIDS? The laughter stops.

"No glove, no love," says Casandra, suddenly deadpan.

The poorest country in the Americas, Haiti also has the region's highest incidence of HIV/AIDS, and children already robbed of innocence by abject poverty enslaving 80 percent of the population are being swallowed up by the scourge.

The virus is a leading cause of death in this impoverished Caribbean nation, an economic basket case dependent on foreign handouts.

PROSTITUTION RIFE

Local health groups estimate some 30,000 women work as prostitutes across Haiti, the vast majority under the age of 24, and several thousand of them under the age of 18.

The HIV/AIDS prevalence rate for the overall population is between 4.5 and 7.7 percent, considerably lower than in parts of Africa, but if unchecked, potentially explosive.

"Every year 5,000 children are born HIV-infected. There are an estimated 200,000 children orphaned by AIDS," said Luz Angela Melo, child protection officer for the U.N. children's agency.

AIDS -- which surfaced over two decades ago and decimated the local tourist industry -- is just one danger stalking Haiti's children. Around 1.2 million of them -- or around 15 percent of Haiti's total 8.1 million population -- live in extremely vulnerable conditions.

Melo says Haiti's latest political crisis, which saw former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide ousted in a bloody rebellion in February, has undoubtedly plunged more children into severe hardship.

An estimated 2,000 children are trafficked into neighboring Dominican Republic each year to work or beg, Melo said, while up to 300,000 children work as unpaid servants in Haiti, given up by parents who cannot afford to feed them.

"Conditions are very hard. ... We need to help them in many, many ways, but nothing will be enough. There are so many children," Melo said.

BABES-IN-ARMS

In central Port-au-Prince, hundreds of people flock each week to Haiti's National Laboratory Research Institute for free AIDS and tuberculosis tests.

Waiting rooms are packed. Mothers and their infants have blood samples taken. Some patients, clearly very ill, lie crumpled against walls waiting their turn.

Too weak to speak, emaciated Estelle Shibon, 22, her eyes sunken from AIDS and tuberculosis, is carried out of the institute in the arms of a relative. Her mother clutches a bag of medication the center doles out for free.

Last year, the institute tested 21,000 people. Of those, around 20 percent tested positive for HIV/AIDS.

"One thing that we have noticed is that more and more adolescents are coming here, mostly females, and we are trying to see why," said Dr. Patrice Joseph, who works at the institute.

"There has been a 30 percent increase in people coming for HIV testing, but we have seen a (slight) decrease in the number of people infected," he added.

Back at their street corner, Widney and her friends have no doubt they have chosen the right line of work given Haiti's wider problems.

Charging anything from $7 to $28 per client, their earnings are light-years ahead of around half of the population who make less than $1 a day.

"It's good money," Widney and Casandra chime together, running over to talk to a potential client.

Copyright 2004 Reuters Limited                                                                                                                   

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